I love stories of miracles or of people who have defied the odds, and today I have an interview with a lady who has done just that. This is a lady, Heather Von St. James, who 10 years ago, was given 15 months to live, and today is dedicated to sharing her story, so that she can inspire others and raise awareness of the cause of her illness, asbestos.
Heather says that determination, a positive attitude and support from others are some of they key factors contributing to her ability to overcome her illness and I absolutely believe this to be true.
I recently read a book called ‘Mind Over Medicine’ by Dr Lissa Rankin, a medical doctor who says that your mindset, beliefs and the stories you tell yourself play a massive role in your health. This is particularly important when it comes to illness and the body’s ability to heal. I was intrigued by this book and wanted to know more about what makes some people heal when others do not.
So when Heather approached me, I was immediately curious about her story. I was wondering things like ‘how did Heather overcome something that she was told was terminal?’ and ‘what did she do differently to the people who haven’t survived the same diagnosis?’. Luckily for us, Heather was open to these questions and speaks about them in today’s interview.
And so it’s with great pleasure that I introduce, Heather Von St. James…
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your story?
My name is Heather Von St. James. Before my mesothelioma diagnosis, I was a business owner and a stylist, a mother and a wife. I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in 2005, shortly after giving birth to my daughter Lily. Mesothelioma is caused by a toxic material called asbestos. I learned I had been exposed to asbestos from wearing my father’s work jacket. It flipped my life upside down.
My husband Cameron and I found ourselves in Boston with Dr. David Sugarbaker, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I was told that I was a candidate for a risky surgery. I had my left lung removed on February 2nd, 2006 and spent 18 days in the hospital recovering.
After a month in Boston, I returned to my parent’s home to recover from the surgery and prep for the next steps of treatment; 4 rounds of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiation. My husband stayed home in Minnesota to work while most of this was going on.
I wouldn’t be here today had it not been for the support and treatment I got during that time.
2. As a new mother it must have been hard to process all of this, how did you react to your diagnosis?
I had a lot of fear and uncertainty about everything. All I could think about was my little girl. She needed her mommy to be around. Dr. Sugarbaker was incredible and helped ease the initial shock.
After that, a quiet determination set in. I was going to beat this. It was all so surreal. A few months ago everything was seemingly fine, then the bottom dropped out of my life.
I had to do what I needed to do to survive. My survival instincts kicked in.
3. What helped you through your cancer experience?
The support of those around me made a huge difference in my life once I got sick.
The key is that you can’t try to do it all on your own. As a new mom, it was instinctual to tackle things by myself, but allowing people to help made all the difference.
The help of my parents while I was living with them, and the determination and perseverance I saw my husband display were inspiring. Cameron only saw Lily 36 hours in the first 3 months of her life, but since the bills had to be paid, he had to be back in Minnesota working. There are also so many amazing support groups that can help make the journey easier.
I know that I won’t be “normal” again, but the new normal I have adapted to is pretty incredible.
4. Where do you find your inspiration?
Other cancer patients inspire me.
I have gotten involved with a few different organizations, and meeting people from all walks of life, beating seemingly impossible odds inspire me.
My childhood friend’s son was diagnosed with cancer when he was just 18 months old, he was given 4 months to live. He started college this year and he inspires me to no end.
I met another young man through Stupid Cancer who was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 4. He’s had multiple surgeries, 3 reoccurrences. He is the kindest, most amazing young man I’ve ever met. He gives back by volunteering at The Children’s Hospital .
My friend Linda lost her husband to mesothelioma, and now she’s standing for a ban on asbestos.
These are just a few of the countless who inspire me.
5. What do you attribute your longevity to? What is the message you aim to spread now, as an almost 10 year cancer survivor?
Good old-fashioned stubbornness.
In all seriousness, I had excellent medical care from the start. My surgeon and I decided to hit the cancer hard and do everything we could to get rid of it. Extreme surgery, chemo, radiation, whatever we could throw at it, we did.
I know there were thousands of prayers said for me and my family, and my belief is that they helped… they certainly didn’t hurt!
A positive attitude also played a massive part – I only needed to look at my baby girl for a reason to stay strong. She was all I needed to give myself the will to live.
I hope to inspire people. No matter what obstacle they’re up against. As a 10 year survivor, I want to give people hope. I want them to think, “If she did it, so can I.” I want to spread awareness about mesothelioma and how it’s a man-made illness, caused by asbestos, which is not yet banned. To me, those are the most important aspects of being survivor.
If you want to know more about Heather, you can find her at www.mesothelioma.com/heather.
Thanks so much for sharing your story Heather!
Photo by ‘Kevin Wood Photography’.